Anicka Newell knew before her back hit the mat.
The 27-year-old won the Expo Explosion pole vault meet in Belton, Texas last weekend, but far bigger than the victory was her winning height of 4.70 metres — the exact Tokyo Olympic standard.
In a grim Olympic year that has seen countless global competitions wiped out by COVID-19, securing that precious standard is no small feat.
“As soon as I went over the bar you can pretty much feel if you’ve cleared (the bar) and if it’s staying up there or not, so even on the way down I was already pretty much ready to cry,” Newell said.
Newell cleared the height — a personal best — on her first attempt. Fellow Canadian Alysha Newman was second with 4.65.
Newell said she was devastated when the global pandemic forced the postponement of the Tokyo Olympics last year, but there was also an upside. She was hampered by a nagging Achilles tendon injury, and the extra time has allowed her to fully heal.
“So, it worked in my favour,” she said. “The process of the rehab, coming back from that was fairly long and strenuous, but now I’m 100 per cent healthy, and I feel really good.
“I am so excited. Last year, with where I was physically and mentally, I still had high hopes, but not not as much as I do right now, that’s for sure.”
Newell was born in Denton, Texas, and is eligible to compete for Canada because her mother was born here. She lives near San Antonio, and said there’s positive and negatives right now to living in Texas — which is virtually wide open despite the sky-high pandemic case numbers. One in five hospital beds in Texas are currently occupied by COVID-19 patients.
“Is it is quite open. I don’t know how to feel about it,” Newell said. “I’m pretty isolated just because professional athletes don’t really … I don’t have that much of a social life. I’m only pretty much at the gym and at home 24/7. But yeah, even the bars here open until their normal 2 a.m. hours. It’s pretty wild.”
Her coach Brookelyn Dickson was diagnosed with COVID-19 a few weeks ago. Newell also coaches with Dickson’s pole vault club, so after the Canadian passed her own coronavirus test, she took over coaching duties while Dickson recovered.
Countless Canadian athletes saw their training facilities shut down when the pandemic began last spring. With the second wave, access continues to be a challenge. And if Canadians compete abroad, they must quarantine for two weeks upon their return home.
A positive for Newell is that even when Texas was in lockdown, she was able to train at Dickson’s personal pole vault facility, an old airplane hangar the coach has on her property. She’s outfitted the metal hangar with a full pole vault runway and pit and a weightlifting area.
“It’s pretty makeshift, but it’s definitely home,” Newell said of the facility. “It gets real hot in the summer. We have the fans out there. I would say cold is a relative term here, but we do have the heaters on during the winter. But it’s really nice, I definitely love having it.
“I actually I probably had one of the easiest times in COVID as far as training which I’m super thankful for,” she added.
With the world track and field schedule all but erased in the past 10 months, she feels fortunate to be able to compete. Last weekend’s meet, which had a field of some 450-500 athletes including kids and masters age groups, was her second since last spring.
Getting the Olympic standard was “a huge weight off my shoulders.
“I fully intended to hit it. I wasn’t pressuring myself for it at all, but I had gone into that competition kind of knowing in the back of my head ‘I’m going to hit it today.’ But definitely getting that out of the way, I don’t have to stress about getting into more meets as fast as possible to try and hit it. I’m already done.”
To rubber-stamp her spot on Canada’s Tokyo team, she’ll also have to jump at Olympic trials in June in Montreal.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 5, 2021.
Lori Ewing, The Canadian Press